Notes on Parenting

Insights for parenting babies, toddlers, teens, and young adults.

Friday, October 7, 2011

How To Deal With Three-Year-Olds


This is my son.  He made this face a lot back then.



When my first born son turned three, that's when I doubted my skills as a mother the most and I seriously wondered if he was mentally ill because he was so contrary and angry.  I thought, "I can visit my son in the mental hospital, right?"  What happened to my sweet little baby who was so eager to please?

He literally wanted to do the exact opposite of everything I wanted, even if the latest option presented what he wanted ten minutes ago.  For example:  Earlier he had been screaming that he didn't want to take a bath.  Then when it was time to get out of the bath, he screamed as if I were torturing him.

I couldn't do anything right and this terrible phase lasted for months.  My mom would say, "Awwww!  He just needs to get out more."  I said, "Nuh uh.  I'm not taking him anywhere!"  So now I felt like my mother was judging me.  When we moved in with her for a couple months, our first outing ended with her exclaiming to my son, "I AM NEVER TAKING YOU ANYWHERE AGAIN!"

Oh yes, I smiled with such smug satisfaction.  The validation was beautiful.  I laughed the rest of the way home until it was time to bring him into the house against his will.  Nevermind that he didn't want to leave the house in the first place.  His mission was to protest every move I made.

So how did I survive this time, you ask?  Chances are you found this article because you have a three-year-old.  Many of you are probably also pregnant or have an infant in addition to dealing with your child who is making life so challenging.  I feel your pain.  I was in my third trimester when I had to carry my son kicking and screaming everywhere we went.

1.  Prayer.  Sometimes just praying for patience because I realized it was a phase and he was transitioning from being a toddler to a little boy.  He wanted to be independent and call the shots.  Other times prayer brought inspiring ideas that you wouldn't find in a parenting book.

2.  Talking to other parents experiencing the same.  Just realizing you're not alone can make a big difference.  You can compare stories and maybe even laugh.  Or cry.  Crying is OK too.

3.  Choose your battles.  You can spend all day fighting them, so perhaps "yes" to wearing the shirt that has food on it but a definite "no" for going outside naked.

4.  Follow through no matter how ugly it's going to get.  For example, "Your dad is leaving in five minutes whether you're ready or not.  If you're still naked, he's going without you."  You will have to break the bad news to your three-year-old nudist that Dad is gone because they chose not to get dressed.  Yes, this was another personal example.  I was sad for him, but he was so determined not to cooperate with any of my reasonable requests.  The 30 minute long naked tantrum was horrible, but if I recall correctly, he was better the next time.

5.  Give a warning.  Prepare them in advance for changing activities and maybe even role play leaving Grandma's house after a nice visit.  Let them know you're leaving in ten minutes, then a five minute warning.  Still, there are no guarantees this will avoid a meltdown, but it works for some kids.

6.  Give them choices.  They feel like they have a little more control.  "Do you want the green cup or the blue cup?"

7.  Give them easy chores.  Sounds strange, but they actually enjoy things like getting the laundry out of the dryer, helping you clear out the dishwasher, setting the table, and more.  They like feeling useful.  My son especially liked helping me with his brother.  On the other hand, he also loved waking him up from his nap.

8.  Look at the positive.  Tell yourself that your child is developing strong personality traits that will help them when they're older.  

9.  Praise them.  Whenever they do something positive, tell them it makes you so happy and proud of them.  That is, unless your child is like my second son who was for some reason completely offended by praise.

10.  Stay calm.  Remember that they are going to learn their coping skills from you and keep telling yourself that it's just a phase.

11.  Get a break.  Whether from your spouse or a babysitter, get some time away so you can feel renewed.

12.  Have dates with them.  You can do this at home or take them somewhere special.  Put the chores aside and draw with them, play with clay, do a puzzle, bake some cookies, etc.  Because they can be so challenging, you might find yourself avoiding further interaction after you calmed them down.  They need to know that you still want to spend time with them despite their exhausting and flabbergasting behavior.

Once again, I have a three-year-old and my greatest comfort is that my 12-year-old son who gave me so much grief is now a well-mannered, gentle, kind, helpful, and thoughtful boy.  I survived three with my older three children and I know I can do it again.  That doesn't mean I don't have moments of self-doubt.  

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